BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Severe thunderstorms in equatorial Africa can place aircraft in extreme peril, and may have been a contributing factor in the crash of a Kenya Airways Boeing 737-800, pilots familiar with the region say.
The danger is magnified because radar coverage is sparse to nonexistent over much of the continent, making it nearly impossible for air traffic control to warn pilots about storm cells on their routes.
The Kenya Airways jet took off early Saturday in torrential rain bound for Nairobi. Its wreckage was found on Sunday in a mangrove forest about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of the airport.
"A plane never takes off into an actual thunderstorm, no crew or carrier would allow that," said Patrick Smith, a U.S. based-airline pilot and aviation writer. "But it is remotely possible that the plane could have inadvertently hit some extremely turbulent air and suffered massive hail damage or a sudden structural failure."
Analysts said it was too early for a conclusive analysis on the possible causes of the crash of the six-month old plane, the newest generation of Boeing's 737 family of jets of which more than 5,000 have been sold over the past 40 years.
But the fact that the crash occurred so close to the airport along what appeared to be a standard departure route, and that the crew never reported technical difficulties indicates that the pilots had very little time to react.
"Whatever happened must have happened very fast, which is usually a sign of catastrophic structural failure" most likely resulting from extraordinary weather conditions, Smith said in a telephone interview.
The plane took off from Douala in darkness just after midnight headed southeast, according to reports from civil aviation authorities.
A pilot familiar with the region said that like many airports in Africa, Douala is not equipped with weather radar giving air traffic control the information they need to order crew to delay takeoff until a storm dissipates or passes the intended flight path.
But modern jets such as the 737-800 are equipped with sophisticated weather radars to warn them of storm cells - particularly the violent cumulonimbus clouds that contain severe updrafts and downdrafts.
"However, if the pilots were concentrating on takeoff procedures, or did not have the radar turned on, it's possible they could have missed the warnings," said an experienced commercial pilot who could not be identified in accordance with his airline's policy.
Smaller planes are always instructed to fly around thunderstorm systems, which can be difficult to detect visually in flight because they are often obscured by other clouds. Passenger jets such as the 737 rely on their radars to avoid flying through patches of high wind shear.
"Can a storm cell cause a 737-800 to crash? It happened only a few times over the past 50 years, so it's a rare scenario but still conceivable," said Smith.
Another possibility is that both engines flamed out in the storm because of water or hail ingestion, Smith said.
"That's also an extremely unlikely occurrence, but it has happened in the past," Smith said. He cited an accident in 2002 involving a Boeing 737 in Indonesia, which crash-landed in a river after a double engine failure in a thunderstorm.
Smith said that despite their reputation, Africa's main commercial carriers, including Kenya Airways, have a good overall safety record.
Analysts said it was too early for a conclusive analysis on the possible causes of the crash of the six-month old plane, the newest generation of Boeing's 737 family of jets of which more than 5,000...
"The 737-800 is the latest version of the world's most popular airliner. Any malfunction could have very wide implications."
Officials investigating the crash of a Kenya Airways flight will focus initially on why the pilot took off in a thunderstorm.
Pilot Wamwea's decision to depart into one of the violent tropical storms that regularly ravages parts of equatorial Africa during the rainy season was most likely the pivotal factor in the crash.